How much space do you need?
today at 9:45 am
For those of us who live in small apartments or condos, our homes added to the challenges of the pandemic. We lacked a variety of rooms to offer a change of scene during isolation.
Now that I’m going out again, I no longer feel cooped up in my 3½ rooms. But the experience of confinement prompted me to reflect on how much space is required, or desired, in a residence. While I concluded that more square footage in anticipation of another pandemic makes about as much sense for me as a formal dining room, I realize that size is a preference. For some, the bigger, the better; for others, compact is a cozy choice.
A couple I know, both divorced and their respective children grown, bought a huge house when they married and added on to it. I guess neither wanted to get rid of possessions. Another person, living alone, thought her house needed at least four bedrooms for resale value.
They are not unusual in the United States. The US Census Bureau reported that the average size of a new home increased 62 percent from 1973 to 2015, when it peaked at 2,687 square feet, exceeding that in countries with larger per capita incomes.
Most of my friends buck the norm, however. I know four couples who are happy with two bedrooms. A half-dozen single friends live in one-bedroom dwellings, as do I. Two of them downsized from suburban houses and one from a large condo. Three women remain in the first condo they bought decades ago; they never saw a need to move on from their starter homes.
My guess is that most of us could have afforded a bigger place. I arbitrarily set a $200,000 price limit when shopping for a downtown condo 8½ years ago. I was lucky to find a foreclosure, a one-bedroom with the balcony and nook for an office that I wanted.
Even though space needs are subjective, efforts are made to quantify a desirable amount. For example, the Engineering Toolbox, a site with design information and resources, determined that the average person needs about 100 to 400 square feet of space to feel comfortable in an apartment.
I wouldn’t attempt to live in 400 square feet. I felt immediately claustrophobic when I walked into a studio apartment of 550 square feet. But my 900 square feet feel fine when I don’t have to stay in 24/7.
I can’t remember any friends complaining that their spaces are too small. In fact, one of them likes to say, “I could have gone smaller.” These are among the advantages we’ve discussed about living small:
Less upkeep: Less time cleaning, fewer things to fix, and (for condos and apartments) no exterior maintenance.
Less clutter, fewer possessions: The less space, the less stuff you can accumulate.
Affordability: Smaller spaces are cheaper to buy or rent, furnish, and maintain. One friend also notes a less obvious cost advantage: Her 780-square-foot condo, the smallest size in the building, comes with the same amenities as the bigger units — a parking space, an identical storage room, and use of the swimming pool and other common areas.
Easier to decorate: You have only a few rooms to try to make just right. A friend who has achieved just right doesn’t understand why people ooh and aah over big spaces more than small ones. “A small place can look just as nice as a big one,” she comments.
Coziness: It’s easier to create a cozy feel in small spaces than in big rooms with tall ceilings.
More environmentally responsible: Our carbon footprint is small. We live in all of our space instead of having rooms used only occasionally.
There are signs that bigness may have run its course in the American housing market. The average size of houses built since 2015 is going down, and the National Association of Home Builders reports that the greatest demand is for affordable, practical housing. Some cities, including Minneapolis, have eliminated single-family zoning to make housing more affordable.
If those trends hold, we’ll be hearing more advice about how to maximize space in small residences. My friends and I would gladly pass along tips.